Wayne Thiebaud's striking re-interpretations of the traditional genre of landscape painting takes its inspiration from the unique topography of San Francisco-its lurching and plunging hills, the rigidity of the urban streetscape, the strict formality of the buildings, sidewalks, and even the road markings-which the artist uses to upend conventional perspective, creating swells and inclines on the cusp between abstraction and representation. In addition, his resourceful use of light and shadow on the vertically thrusting street, rendered with a painterly realism and gravity-defying manipulation of space, demonstrates Thiebaud's determination to complicate perspective as he creates a viewing experience that plays with both the audience's sense of position and frame of reference.
City Downgrade is defined by Thiebaud's rendering of ambiguous, even precarious states of vertical tension. The main highway vanishes into the hillside, only to burst upward towards the pale, crisp Northern California sky. Strong light casts extravagantly angled shadows onto the vertical black pavement. Thiebaud seems to hang cars onto the curb to keep them in place like ornaments, and one cannot help but feel the tug of gravity that the scene defies. These elements further confuse the reading of space: the street lamp in the lower left corner accentuates the vertical thrust of the street, while the downward arrow on the highway sign opposite plays on the confusion of directional perspective that Thiebaud has created.
Thiebaud works within the traditional confines of the landscape genre and draws upon historical antecedents like the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, placing emphasis on the physical qualities topography and light, whether artificially created or natural. People are rarely included and when they do appear, they are minor punctuations in the overall roiling energy of the work. Instead, as seen in City Downgrade, Thiebaud includes details of the urban landscape in a composite rendering from memory of the collision of street lamps, parked cars, and highway signs. The landscapes and cityscapes further serve as a forum for Thiebaud's formal investigations. "I'm not just interested in the pictorial aspects of the landscape-see a pretty place and try to paint it-but in some way to manage it, manipulate it, or see what I can turn it into" (W. Thiebaud, quoted by G. Gordon, in "Thiebaud Puts a Visual Fest on Canvas," California Aggie, University of California, Davis, 1983, p. 2).
Thiebaud was specifically interested in confusing the reading of space by eliminating the horizon line or any fixed vantage point normally associated with landscape paintings. "Landscape for me took on the problem of composition," Thiebaud explains. "I wanted to eliminate the horizon line, to see if I could get a landscape image that didn't use a horizontal fixation. Instead, I try to establish a positional direction for the viewer-whether it's up, down, helicopter view, world view, valley view-to try and get some sense of the loss of the convenience or comfort of standing and looking at things, to throw people off a bit" (W. Thiebaud, ibid., p. 2). This manipulation of the horizon is clearly visible in City Downgrade, where Thiebaud has combined multiple vantage points in an effort to both unsettle the viewer's position while in the swirl of perspective move away from mere mimesis to a merry-go-round of spatial relationships.
Potrero Hill is cut by the angular patterns of poured cement and blacktop roads. When San Francisco was rebuilt in 1906 after the Great Fire, many of its streets were carved straight up the hillsides. Some streets rise so abruptly that they appear to shoot vertically into the air. In 1973 Thiebaud moved to a second home in San Francisco located on Potrero Hill, one of the many elevations that define the city's unique terrain. Over forty of these summits can be counted, rising just south of San Francisco's busy downtown center. Two major freeways, railroads, and bridges punctuate the landscape, along with towering office buildings that serve as urban motifs for the artist. The unique layout of the city sparked Thiebaud's fascination with capturing the topographical extremes of the city on his canvas. "Going to San Francisco, I was...fascinated by those plunging streets, where you get down to an intersection and all four streets take off in different directions and positions. There was a sense of displacement, or indeterminate fixed positional stability. That led me to this sense of 'verticality' that you get in San Francisco. You look at a hill, and, visually, it doesn't look as if the cars would be able to stay on it and grip. It's a very precarious state of tension, like a tightrope walk" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Stowens "Wayne Thiebaud: Beyond Pop Art," American Artist, September 1980, p. 102).
The visual ambiguities of Thiebaud's cityscape recall the work of Richard Diebenkorn, another notable painter of San Francisco's unique topography. Diebenkorn and Thiebaud share compositional handling, organizing their surfaces into colorful geometric planes and emphasizing bold vertical climbs, the aerial perspectives combining elevated vantage points and lifting or obscuring horizon lines to create a visual vertigo. In contrast, though, to Diebenkorn's open and softer sensuality, Thiebaud is interested in the fierce spatial compression of the street that is read flat against the picture plane, flush with the similarly collapsed facades of the two high rises framing it. Yet the shadows that these buildings throw upon the street create a simultaneous reading of depth and flatness, a tension between three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional surface that the artist emphasizes. These simultaneous tensions between depth and surface and abstraction and representation create a work of compelling dynamism in the train of modernist masters, for example Cézanne and Braque, with whom Thiebaud shares shifting perspectives and geometric patterning. Referring to Thiebaud's landscapes, the philosopher and critic Richard Wollheim, wrote, "These paintings exhibit a complexity and, above all, an old-masterish cultivation of detail, completely without ironical intent, that has not been observed in art since the drip paintings of Pollock or the glorious late Ateliers of Braque" (R. Wollheim, Artforum, Vol. 38, no. 2, 1999).
City Downgrade synthesizes Thiebaud's formal and aesthetic concerns into a single mature canvas. His signature palette and brushwork create an urban rollercoaster that dangles at the limits of the real and impossible. Revealed in the unique San Franciscan topography is Thiebaud's interest in the complex tensions of depth, flatness, and ambiguous perspective. In City Downgrade Thiebaud has captured the urban landscape in a way that not only intensifies and condenses perspective, powerfully manipulating the geometries of angles and planes of topography, but also presents a highly individual take on the lush chromatic painterly surface and the rigors of compositional placement of Western art traditions while delivering to the viewer an enhanced sense of the immediacy and fullness of lived experience.